Forsythia: For Or Against?
Forsythia bushes bursting with bright yellow flowers is a common springtime sight in this part of the world, a sight that lifts the spirits of many. Yet not everyone loves forsythia. The anti-forsythia camp argues for an indictment of this shrub on the following counts:
An exotic, it is of little wildlife value in North America. No berries for the birds. Not a host plant for butterflies or moths. On the other hand, I have found borers in the stems on a couple of occasions.
Once the yellow flowers are gone, it offers little of interest for the rest of the year. Actually, they sometimes have decent fall color. But even so, this is a plant that fades into the background much of the year.
It creates a thickety mess if you turn your back on it. As they grow, forsythia stems will arch down to the ground, where they put down roots and start a new plant. Ignore them for a season or two and you will have a jungle on your hands, albeit a bright yellow jungle in springtime.
It is just too damn common. I suspect this is the single biggest reason people really don’t like forsythia, and I would agree that it is over-used. On the other hand, some would say that black-eyed susan, also known as orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), is over-used. This may be true, but I still love black-eyed susan. Simply being common does not always make a plant tiresome. If it does or not seems to be a matter that is entirely personal and subjective.
I suppose I am a member of the anti-forsythia camp, but I try not to be rabid about it. The lack of wildlife value for me is the deciding factor. A few years ago, we had to remove a forsythia hedge on the east side of the house in order to waterproof the basement. I did not mourn its passing.
Instead, I took the opportunity to replace them with red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.), a native shrub with pyramids of small white flowers in spring, followed by bright red berries. It is a favorite of many birds, including cedar waxwings, orioles, and robins. I should confess that this is another shrub that will pursue world domination if not watched closely. Also, though the fruit is edible for birds, it is also toxic for humans.
I still have some forsythia in the mixed hedge along the west side of the back garden. I am trying to train these forsythia so that they will provide a better privacy screen, and also to prevent them from spreading in an unruly manner.
I admit that a well-pruned forsythia bush can be attractive, at least during it’s spring peak. Such a shrub is in front of one of the houses across the street. This forsythia is pruned to create an upright shape topped by arching stems that stop several feet above the ground.
At the risk of being repetitive, I have to mention again that a good native alternative to forsythia is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This shrub has fragrant foliage, understated yellow flowers in early spring, is a butterfly host plant, and has attractive red berries of high value to birds in fall.
Which side of the forsythia divide are you on: for or against?